Not even an Inter Miami fan with the most pink-tinted glasses could say Lionel Messi and his club’s globe-trotting preseason has gone well.
The Herons gave up 10 goals combined in their two matches against Saudi Arabian clubs in mid-season form. In the latter, a much-anticipated meeting between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo never materialized.
Next, the decision to rest Messi while he nursed a mild adductor injury in Hong Kong led to such outrage locally that Chinese authorities canceled a pair of Argentina national team friendlies there scheduled for March.
Maybe most concerning, Messi himself admitted that the whole ordeal has been fatiguing, hardly what you want to hear from the greatest living player on earth as his first full MLS season and the Concacaf Champions Cup quickly approaches.
The obvious takeaway from all this is a cautionary tale for other MLS clubs who dare consider a similar, 23,000-air-mile tour in the future.
At the same time, Miami’s ambition should be lauded in an era when many MLS teams still seem to actively shun the spotlight to the point of refusing to publish preseason results. And MLS should want to create a climate where more clubs can feel emboldened to use their preseasons as marketing trips in the manner European giants have done for decades now.
One way to do that? Flip the schedule to a fall-to-spring season more in line with Europe’s top leagues.
Whenever talk bubbles up about trying to align the MLS calendar with Europe’s, one of the most overlooked aspects is the transformational impact it could have on the MLS preseason.
Let’s take a trip like Miami’s as an example, and look at what would be different if this was a summer journey.
For starters, whatever wear and tear the team is picking up at this particular moment would be less risky, because all of its most important matches (except maybe in the Leagues Cup) would be several months away.
Instead, while Miami might be able to afford a spring hangover in their league campaign because of MLS’ playoff format, it will have only three weeks to regroup for what might be their most important competition this season: the Concacaf Champions Cup.
There’s a berth in the 2025 FIFA World Cup on the line — which Messi could still feature in if Miami wins the tournament. And yet, if there are lingering effects from their worldwide travels that hinder Miami’s performance in a round of 16 series, those continental title hopes could be dead by mid-March.
Then there’s the matter of the kinds of opponents an ambitious MLS team could schedule in July and August, maybe without even traveling. That’s when the United States regularly welcomes many of Europe’s biggest clubs for their own preseason camps, capturing the attention and ticket dollars of hundreds of thousands of American soccer fans. As of now, MLS clubs mostly miss out on those opportunities because they are busy playing in the league or the Leagues Cup.
Flip the schedule and suddenly it could be your local MLS team taking on FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich on a regular basis before both teams kick off their regular seasons. And when those teams don’t go to the United States, they often go to the same East Asian Markets Miami had targeted this season. So if you wanted, you could still travel the world during the preseason and play a better caliber of opponent, both in terms of quality and marketability.
There are very real challenges to playing a fall-to-spring regular season in the United States and Canada. There would almost certainly have to be some sort of winter break during the coldest weeks of the year. Scheduling Leagues Cup for mid-January to mid-February in warmer climates could also help.
But there is also this idea that somehow it makes more sense to host regular season games in the warmest months than to host really appealing exhibitions against some of the greatest teams in the world. That’s fiction. And as more stars follow Messi’s lead to MLS in the years to come, the league would be wise to consider a schedule shift that would allow more of those appealing exhibitions to happen while minimizing the competitive cost Miami is currently paying.